You Say Tapas, I Say Pintxos
I have some relatives that question my need to travel internationally. They say, “why go to other countries when there are so many great places to see here?” They are right, there are many spots in the US that I intend on visiting, but my game plan has always been to travel internationally while I am young. I want to be able to jump off the lunar rocks at Moon Beach and run the streets of Pamplona with a bull breathing down my neck while I am still able to. As I see it, there will be plenty of time to visit the world’s largest ball of yarn from my pimped-out Winnebago during my retirement years.
If I never travelled outside of the country then I would have missed out on my greatest food experience. A few years back, my wife and I went to Spain with the intention of visiting Barcelona with a side trip to San Sebastian. Barcelona was the goal, my #1 on my top 5 “cities to visit” list. What happened instead was preordained by the food gods. If Barcelona is Spain’s Ginger Grant, with the sexy Mediterranean backdrop and glitzy nightlife, then San Sebastian is Mary Ann. Unassuming, with a natural beauty that once you get to know, has you thinking “Damn, Ginger who?” I knew that San Sebastian had a high concentration of Michelin starred restaurants which intrigued me including Arzak, the World’s #8 rated restaurant. (Side note, I was able to snag ressies but missed going due to a 10-hour flight delay ☹ ) What I didn’t know about was how culturally significant eating pintxos (pinchos) was to the region.
San Sebastian is a picturesque coastal city located in the fiercely independent region of Basque in Northern Spain. People from Basque do things on their own terms. They have their own language and even refer to their city as Donostia. While Spanish is understood by all, street signs are dubbed in both Spanish and Euskura making you feel, at times, that you are in a country within a country. And unlike the rest of Spain which refers to the small savory snacks served with drinks as tapas, in San Sebastian they are called pintxos.
And eating pintxos is a BIG DEAL. It even has it's own name -Txikiteo (chee-kee-tay-o). In the early evening, the Old Town neighborhood swells with locals and curious tourists starting out their night. There are no cars allowed in the ancient neighborhood and people spill into the labyrinth of tight streets and narrow alleyways as they head to their favorite Pintxo bar.
There are over 50 different Pintxo Bars in the Old Town, each one offering a chalkboard full of daily specials. The whole experience can feel overwhelming for first timers. There are no bar stools, and you don’t drink at the actual bar. Instead, there are platters of finger sized bites, skewered with a toothpick spread out for the taking. Behind the counter, the bartender pours txakoli, a young sparkling wine, from a height that makes Tom Cruise’s antics in Cocktail look childish. The expectation is to grab a small glass of the bubbly, a zurito (short beer) or a cider and choose just one or two the amazing array of appetizers. Most bars offer many of the same foods like the original pintxo the gilda, a combination of spicy pepper, olives and fish on top of bread. Other options like locally caught and cured anchovies called boquerones, slow braised beef cheek on mashed potatoes and my personal favorite pulpo a lo gallega (octopus) will have your mouth drooling but pay attention to the locals as they will point out what the specialty of the house at each place is.
If you are anything like me, your instinct will be to feast like a medieval king but there is a pace to enjoying Txikiteo. Have a drink, have bite and tell the barkeep what you had, there is an honor bar system that is surprisingly efficient. Then follow the crowd to the next bar and the next. And don’t worry, if you think you missed out on sampling that eel and smoked salmon that you had your eye on all night, there is always tomorrow night.
Pintxo sampling is foreplay and not intended to replace your nightly meal. In Spain, dinner doesn’t begin until 9:00 or later, so remember your favorite spot and circle back. I also strongly recommend doing an organized Pintxo Tour. I’d be happy to recommend, shoot me an e-mail.